A memoir that begins with the author’s birth in 1922, The Sharecropper’s Son serves as an instructive, if often challenging, chronology of life as an African-American coming of age in North Carolina during a contentious time in the history of American race relations.
This text is most powerful when it recounts a young man’s growing understanding of the world around him. In one such scene, the author and his father use the back door at a restaurant while the white landowner goes into the beautifully decorated front room. “I could see the dining chairs and the white dining cloths on the tables and the beautiful chandeliers hanging from the ceiling,” writes author Samuel Smith. In the back of the establishment, “Daddy and I ate our food standing on our feet.” The passage is poignant, speaking both to the author’s life and to a broader engagement with societal injustice.
The author’s explanation of his feelings after this particular moment, however, encapsulates many of the book’s recurring problems. Smith writes: “I then realized that white Americans had cinched the legalistic institution of blatant racism from the time of the blacks’ inception to the heart of their graves.” Both too formal and too dramatic, the text is never able to strike the personal-but-universal balance that characterizes a successful memoir.
Reading this text can also be jarring due to its many parenthetical asides. On page 19, for instance, the author writes, “[T]he excellent execution (doings) of in-house chores (applied domestic arts) was a continual part of Mother and Daddy’s sons.” Professional editing could have smoothed the narrative flow.
Although this memoir engages with a fascinating time and place, the author’s approach causes his story to feel both highly insular and linguistically stiff. As a result, readers will find difficulty engaging in the text and the larger conversation it might have sparked.